Sri Lankan army deploys in capital amid anti-government protests

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan authorities deployed armored vehicles and troops to the streets of the capital on Wednesday, two days after pro-government mobs attacked peaceful protesters, sparking a wave of violence in across the country.

Security forces have been ordered to shoot those suspected of taking part in the violence as sporadic acts of arson and vandalism have continued despite a strict nationwide curfew that began on Monday evening.

READ MORE: 1 killed and 10 injured after Sri Lankan police open fire during protest

Anti-government protesters have demanded the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, who resigned as prime minister this week over a debt crisis that nearly bankrupted Sri Lanka and left its people face severe shortages of fuel, food and other basic necessities. . Over the past few days, eight people have died and more than 200 have been injured in violent attacks in which mobs set fire to buildings and vehicles.

Armored trucks with soldiers on top drove in some areas of Colombo. Braving the curfew, some protesters have regrouped in front of the president’s office to continue protests that began more than three weeks ago. Police announced over loudspeakers that it is illegal to stay in public places during curfew.

Videos posted on social media showed lines of military trucks driving out of the capital, along with soldiers on motorbikes, and setting up checkpoints across the country amid fears a political vacuum could pave the way for a coup military state.

Senior Defense Ministry official Kamal Gunaratne denied speculation of a military takeover during a press conference with the country’s army and navy chiefs.

“None of our officers has the desire to take power. This has never happened in our country and it’s not easy to do it here,” Gunaratne said. President Rajapaksa is a former senior military officer and remains the country’s official defense minister.

Gunaratne said the army will return to its barracks once the security situation normalizes.

The US State Department has expressed concern over the military deployment.

Spokesman Ned Price said he was “closely monitoring the deployment of troops, which is of concern to us”.

The Prime Minister’s departure created an administrative void without a Cabinet, which dissolved automatically with his resignation.

Navy Commander Nishantha Ulugetenne said former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was protected at a naval base in Trincomalee on the northeast coast.

After Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, he and his family were evacuated from his official residence by thousands of protesters who tried to break into the heavily guarded colonial-era building.

The Indian Embassy denied speculation on social media that “some political figures and their families have fled to India”, and also dismissed speculation that India is sending troops to Sri Lanka.

India’s External Affairs Ministry on Tuesday affirmed its support for Sri Lanka, saying it had granted $3.5 billion to help overcome the economic crisis and sent essential items such as food and medicine.

On Monday, supporters gathered at the prime minister’s official residence to urge Mahinda Rajapaksa to stay in office. After the meeting, government-supporting crowds beat peaceful protesters who had camped near the prime minister’s residence and the president’s office to demand their resignation, as police watched and did nothing to stop them. Across the country, angry citizens responded by attacking government supporters and ruling party politicians.

Eight people, including a ruling party lawmaker and two police officers, were killed and 219 were injured in the violence, the defense ministry said. In addition, 104 buildings and 60 vehicles were set on fire.

Pro-government mobs were chased, beaten and stripped naked. As word spread of where the buses were taking government supporters, people smashed them and set them on fire. Homes of government supporters were attacked and some businesses were burned down.

READ MORE: Sri Lankan president declares state of emergency ahead of new protests

The European Union has called on the authorities to open an investigation into the events and hold accountable those who instigated and perpetrated the violence.

Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy and has suspended payments of $7 billion in foreign loans due this year out of $25 billion due by 2026. Its total external debt is $51 billion.

The shortage of foreign currency has led to lower imports and severe shortages of basic necessities, including food, cooking gas, fuel and medicine. For months people were forced to queue for hours to buy the limited supplies, with many returning with nothing.

Protesters blame alleged corruption and the Rajapaksa brothers’ style of administration for the economic crisis.

Sri Lanka has started talks with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout and is starting debt restructuring negotiations with creditors.

The Central Bank on Wednesday urged the president and parliament to quickly restore political stability, warning that the economy faces a threat of further collapse within days.

“Even for us to make progress on debt restructuring, we need a stable government. A Cabinet, a Parliament, a Prime Minister, a Minister of Finance are all needed,” Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said.

“Without this kind of administration, it is very difficult for us to make progress.”